Senate up next after House passes bold conservative budget

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans pushed a balanced-budget blueprint toward Senate approval on Thursday, laying down conservative markers for a likely veto struggle with President Barack Obama over their plans to erase deficits through trillions in spending cuts and repeal of the nation's health care law.

Approval of the non-binding budget was certain, one day after the House ratified a slightly different version on a party-line vote.

Separately, legislation to stabilize the system for paying physicians who treat Medicare patients cleared the House during the day and is expected to pass the Senate. As a result, the week's events gave credence to Republican claims that their new, two-house majority would be able to govern without the chaos that has often plagued Congress in recent years.

But first, senators plunged into a peculiarly senatorial ritual known inside the Capitol as "vote-a-rama" - bringing up dozens of proposed changes designed largely to score political points on issues as diverse as the sage grouse and the minimum wage.

The 10-year budget plan itself was non-binding, although Republicans said it would lead to tangible gains for hard-pressed consumers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said it included ideas "that could boost jobs, raise annual wages by as much as $5,000 per family and drive economic growth for hardworking Americans." He cited an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for his claim.

With 54 seats in the Senate, Republicans could afford three defections and still be assured a majority for the budget. Even that presented a challenge, though. Four members of the rank and file are likely or announced presidential contenders, and several more face potentially difficult 2016 re-election tests in swing states.

The Senate GOP plan envisions more than $5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade without higher taxes, resulting in a $3 billion surplus in the 10th year of the coming decade.

By comparison, Obama's budget, presented to Congress over the winter, envisions about $2 trillion in higher taxes on the wealthy, corporations and smokers of all income levels, as well as more spending on domestic programs. It fails to balance at any point in the coming 10 years.

The largest components of deficit reduction in the Senate budget, about $4.3 trillion over the decade, would come from benefit programs. That would include repeal of the health care law - a step that Obama has vowed to veto - as well as unspecified reductions from projected growth in Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and other social programs that are also likely to trigger White House opposition.

Also, there would be $413 billion in Medicare cuts over a decade, matching the figure in Obama's own proposals. Unlike the House-passed budget, Senate Republicans did not propose converting Medicare into a voucher-like program for new beneficiaries beginning in 2024, a highly controversial step.

Another $236 billion in savings would come from accounts across the face of government, from education to parks to the Commerce Department, all of them already squeezed in recent years by deficit-reduction agreements between Congress and the White House.

The White House withheld immediate comment on the Senate blueprint, pending its approval.

But in a statement released Wednesday night after the similar plan cleared the House, it said Republicans were aiming to lock in "draconian cuts" in some domestic programs while supporting lower taxes for the rich and "failing to responsibly fund our national security."

Defense spending emerged as a struggle between the political parties where appearances meant more than policies.

Obama proposed $612 billion for the Pentagon for next year, including $561 billion for direct funding and another $51 from a separate account that supports overseas military and diplomatic activities.

Senate Republicans supported an identical $612 billion, $523 billion of that directly and another $89 billion from the separate account.

The Senate budget, like its counterpart in the House, is vague on specifics, and passage would clear the way for a compromise between the two houses that would be followed by the drafting of highly detailed legislation to actually implement the policies.

Under congressional budget rules for that fight to come, Republicans would be permitted to draft one deficit-cutting bill that Senate Democrats could not filibuster, meaning it could pass on a simple majority vote.

The GOP leadership has been somewhat vague about its likely contents, although several rank-and-file Republicans have said they expect it to include the repeal of the health care law that was enacted on the strength of solely Democratic votes five years ago.

But Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters during the day that Republicans want the bill to include replacement health care legislation that lawmakers are putting together in case the Supreme Court strikes down a significant part of the existing law in a ruling expected this June.

Most of the Senate's day was consumed in seemingly endless votes on proposals whose value lay more in a political campaign than in lawmaking.

One, by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a GOP presidential hopeful, recommended putting another $76 billion into defense spending next year, and cutting from domestic programs to offset the cost. It failed, 96-4.

"We'll keep voting until we're exhausted," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Budget Committee, said at midday.

"That's the way we do it in the Senate."

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